UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

From Dombey to Headstone : man in the city in the novels of Charles Dickens. Levine, Jennifer Ann


The focus of this study is not so much the city in Dickens' novels, but man in the city, and particularly man in Victorian London - a city given over to the world of commerce. The conditions resulting from the victory of businessmen and the middle classes are central concerns in the later novels, and are mirrored in the city landscape: Dickens knows that it is in the industrial cities, and not in the countryside, that the social problems of his age must be resolved. Through their insistence that money can do everything, the new powers of the city turn London into an ultimately demonic world, characterized by isolation, confusion, and sterility; shaped into prisons, labyrinths, and wastelands. As the city expands through economic growth, it becomes a monster, threatening its inhabitants with a fearful 'otherness'. The first chapter of the study deals with the fact of change in Victorian London, a change defined by the victory of middle-class and free-enterprise 'Progress'. The succeeding five chapters describe the various ways in which Dickens' urban men attempt to evade the new facts of their environment: through ignorance and isolation, through the misuse of language, through the repression of sexuality and emotion, through the substitution of cash for all human relationships, and, finally, for the middle-classes, through physical escape into Suburbia. Dickens shows, however, that escape is futile: men can only defeat the demonic city by confronting it, and by rejecting (not protecting) its dehumanizing values. The final chapters offer an examination of the demonic and apocalyptic archetypes that structure Dickens' city and attempt to show that, in the later novels, it is necessary to pass through the demonic gulf in order to be redeemed into a happier vision of city life. The possibility of such a victory for urban men - if only on a limited scale, by a small number of characters - is testified to by the humour throughout the novels, and by the happy resolutions at the end. London as the great commercial city is most extensively treated in Dombey and Son, Bleak House, Little,Dorrit, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend, and these are the novels round which most of the study is centred. Although in Hard Times Dickens focuses specifically on the new industrial city, Coketown is only partially like London: everything is on a much smaller - almost on an intimate - scale, and it lacks the compensating 'big city' pleasures that make life in London a more complex issue than merely Man versus Progress. For these reasons, Hard Times is not dealt with as a central text. By their extensive focus on life outside London, Martin Chuzzlewit and David Copperfield are also limited in their applications' to this particular study. In both these novels, the hero's struggle for happiness and self-knowledge is determined only to a small degree by the city itself. The early city worlds of Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist are used for two purposes. They point to some of the continuing concerns of Dickens' art, and they serve as a contrast to the later experiences of urban life: Pickwick Papers, through its ability to assimilate even the Fleet into a joyous vision of the world; and Oliver Twist, through its opposing insistence on a totally evil city. In the later novels, Dickens mediates between the two extremes: London lies somewhere between Eden and Hell. The study is structured along thematic lines, rather than through a series of self-contained essays on individual novels. In its organization, therefore, it must sometimes sacrifice the sense of each novel as an autonomous :word-world with its own unique logic, in order to suggest the coherence within Dickens' works as a whole. The order of development mimics, in a sense, the Dickensian response to the city: it moves cumulatively and inevitably from the discussion of disintegration and isolation of the first chapters towards a vision of London as the demonic city in Chapter VII, and it is only at the end, in the concluding section, that it can move out of the hellish gulf into the world of comedy. For Dickens too, the comic redemption is essential and cannot be left out, but in relationship to the totality of the city, it takes up only a fraction of the whole.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


For non-commercial purposes only, such as research, private study and education. Additional conditions apply, see Terms of Use https://open.library.ubc.ca/terms_of_use.